I have to be honest. As I read Kim Barnes’ In the Kingdom of Men, I had the first line of “Stand By Your Man” on a loop in my head*. The line is, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” For most of In the Kingdom of Men, sometimes works out to most of the time. After losing her mother and grandmother while she was very young, our protagonist, Gin McPhee, goes to live with her old-fashioned fundamentalist father in Oklahoma. He finishes shaping her into a woman who doesn’t quite know how to stand up for herself. The fact that she grew up in the 1950s doesn’t help.
Gin gives us a quick synopsis of her life up until she gets pregnant after a night in the backseat of her boyfriend’s car. Because it’s the 1960s by this point, he “does the right thing” by marrying her. Her husband, Mason, has a complex about doing the right thing. Throughout the book, he quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. and talks about injustice to the poor. But, back to Gin. After Gin marries Mason, they move to Houston where Mason gets work at an oil rig. Unfortunately, their child doesn’t live. The entire reason for their marriage is gone and the cracks start to show in their relationship. Mason comes home one day to announce that he’s taken a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia.
Within pages, Gin finds herself living in a strangely ornate house in an American compound near Mason’s new rig. The previous owners left suddenly, under a bit of a cloud. There are speeches about the “Aramco family,” bored wives aggressively determined to have a good time in spite of the rules, and an entirely new culture to adjust to. There is something sinister going on at Aramco and Barnes builds a terrific mystery out of it. While that slow burn heats up, Gin grows frustrated at the limits around her. It’s not so much that she can’t drink or eat pork. It’s that she can’t travel without a male escort anywhere except the American compound. It’s that she can’t publish her photos of the contrast between the rich Americans and Arabs’ lives and the poor Arabs’ lives. It’s that her only role seems to be waiting for her husband’s weeks off.
This book is going to irritate some readers. It’s agenda is more than clear, to the point where some of the characters give what I think are anachronistic speeches or are more than plausibly nasty to women and Arabs. In the Kingdom of Men is extremely well written. Between the eloquent descriptions and the scorching temperatures outside, I could easily imagine dunes and hot wind and overbearing sun. Spending so much time in Gin’s head really let me understand how claustrophobic the life of a woman in this position could be.
* As performed by the Blues Brothers. Because that’s how my brain works.